David Sheff, Author of Clean, Interview: Part 1 of 2

Join Together chats with David Sheff, author of the new book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, to discuss his exploration into the science, prevention and treatment of addiction. In 2008, Sheff’s New York Times bestselling memoir, Beautiful Boy, detailed his son Nic’s descent into methamphetamine addiction and provided a firsthand parent’s perspective on teenage addiction.

Many of our readers will fondly remember your memoir of your son Nic’s addiction. How is Clean different, or similar, to Beautiful Boy?

David Sheff: Beautiful Boy was the story of my family. Anyone who has a child or other loved one who’s addicted knows the hell we endured. Not only are we terrified and horrified by what’s happening to a person we cherish, but we’re overwhelmed. We don’t sleep, can barely function. Sometimes I couldn’t function. My wife and I did our best to be present for our other children, but it was traumatic for them, too. My daughter Daisy, when she was in 7th or 8th grade, was asked to write a short biography of her family. She wrote about the terrible times when her brother was using, and how her “pillar parents crumbed.” And we did.

At the time we went through this, at first I kept it a secret. I was confused, but also ashamed. I thought, what will people think of me that my son is an addict? What will they think of him? But after Beautiful Boy was published, I learned that openness is a great relief. I realized that we weren’t alone. In fact, I realized that there are millions of us—millions of addicts and millions of family members and friends who love them that are affected/effected. I also realized how lucky we were. After multi-treatment programs when we were hopeful, and then multiple relapses, when we were once again terrorized and terrified, Nic was doing great—now he’s been sober for 5 years. But I met so many people, and heard from so many more, whose kids didn’t make it. We’d been lucky. People were failed by the treatment system. They were failed by the prevention system. At the time, I’d planned to go back to write a business book I’d begun earlier, but I realized that I couldn’t. There is too much suffering, too many deaths. So I went forward to learn what I could about the science of addiction—what’s known, what isn’t known. What works preventing and treating addiction and what doesn’t. And what needs to be done to change the current system. The result is Clean.

What surprised you most as you researched for this book?

Sheff: I guess the most surprising was the wide gap between what’s known to be effective treating addicts and how little it’s used. That is, this disease is treatable, but we’re just not treating it. I was also surprised when I finally figured out how much the stigma is the cause of so many problems with addiction prevention and treatment. There’s no judgment when people get other diseases, but we continue to think of addicts, and treat them, as if they’re selfish, immoral—bad people. We think of kids who use drugs, we think of them as bad kids. But these aren’t bad kids, they’re our kids. Addicts aren’t dissolute or weak willed, they’re ill. 

You are first a journalist. What grade would you give the media for their reporting/portrayal of addiction, and why?

Sheff: Most media portrayals of addiction are simplistic and feed the dangerous, and inaccurate, stereotypes. However, I see signs that this is changing. More journalists are writing about addiction as a medical problem. There is good coverage of breakthroughs in treatment. This shift is critical, because the stigma disappears only when people are educated—when they understand that addiction is a disease, and when they understand that it’s not a disease of the “other” – people still think it could never happen to them and their families – but no one is immune. It’s also critical, because it shows people who may have given up that treatment can work. 

For a disease that impacts so many families in the United States, addiction gets surprisingly little attention from policy makers. How can we change that?

Sheff: I envision a grassroots campaign of people who no longer will accept the silence about addiction. It’s America’s number one tragedy, not only effecting addicts and their families, but every other problem you can name: the economy, criminal justice system, overburdened emergency rooms. It costs America’s companies over $200 billion a year in lost productivity. Unfortunately, it seems that only people who have experience with addiction understand the severity of the problem. We must educate everyone, including our legislators. But there’s a confluence of forces that suggest change. People are tired of hiding, tired of being ignored. There are organizations in many American cities that are working on this. Some policymakers and people of influence are taking this on. President Clinton has launched an Initiative to work on drug problems among college-age kids. Some business leaders are calling for an end to the war on drugs—Richard Branson, George Soros. Former politicians like Jocelyn Elders, Patrick Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter. We must send letters, circulate petitions, have marches. Politicians respond to numbers. We must get hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of people to call for change. 

To find out what else David Sheff shared with Join Together, read Part 2 of his interview. 

Visit Amazon.com to read an excerpt and purchase a copy of Clean.

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    January 27, 2016 at 10:38 AM

    The biggest mistake we made when we discovered our son was sick with the disease of alcoholism is that we sought out a rehab center where there was Psychialtrist and psychologist and addiction doctors. We thought surely they would have the answers. As it turns out all they had was a twelve step program and a revolving door.

    Our son died recently, not from his addiction directly, but from his shame and hoplessness
    Since he passed away I went looking for answers. I needed to know why a disease that take so many lives, and ruins so many families, is not even taught in our medical schools.

    Definitely it is the stigma of this disease that keeps those who suffer from it, from receiving the benefit of research, and compassion.

    I am inspired to find that there are in fact medications that can help, and I am so sad that I never heard about them from the “specialist” that accepted thousands of dollars to help him get well.

    I hope it is not long before society will become educated about this disease and join together for fundraising for research and treatment for all who need it. We do this for every other a Disease including AIDs, why not addiction?

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    margaret gregory

    July 9, 2013 at 7:53 PM

    It is incredible that the pattern of addicts is almost identical and if you delve into their backgrounds there was always an underlying problem BEFORE drugs. Many, many times its not kids from what we stereotypically think: broken homes, poverty, abuse. The trend I believe starts with an underlying undiagnosed mental illness that may or may not be genetic. Ive been to many support groups showing the similarities between these addicts is all too familiar. Many have social problems as young children, learning disabilities,and as adolecents – undetected anti social behaviors. Many have great family support and other siblings that do not become addicts, but have other less noticeable addictive behaviors. Society as a whole rejects addicts – and for a very understandable reason – they cant be trusted – EVER- because their brains have been re-wired to do exact;y opposite of what society should and deserves to expect. They lie, steal, cheat. even kill- to get what their short circuited brain is demanding. All reasoning power is over-ridden by the drug. The people that care the most are caught in a crossfire ranging from hate to pity.To hang in there with the addict will certainly suck the enabling parties in if they dont have an educated stand on the worlkings of addiction. There are too many people out there that think an addict can “just stop” and life will return to normalacy. The problem being is that the addicts feeling of normalcy has now been overridden by the drugs. There can never be a”normal” again for the addict. They have a fight far greater than ours for the rest of their lives – to stay clean – to stay alive.
    Its the most difficulot thing in the world to feel empathy for a person who has stolen from you, lied to you, and done unspeakable things to feed this devilcalled addiction. But remember – they didnt ask for this. Their first experimentation with drugs wasnt for the purpose of destroying lives – it was an immature kid – trying to be cool – and in the long run lost their childhood, their young adulthood and in the end – their adulthood. And many their lives. I dont believe anyone truly wants to be an addict, anymore than anyone wishes they would have a terminal illness. THe more we can do as a society as a whole is to study why some fall to addiction and others dont – and a successful way to help our dear loved ones make recover from this disease that has claimed our children and loved ones.
    For my son Jeff.

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    April 6, 2013 at 8:03 PM

    Not impressed. Perhaps someday, somehow, we will get a best-selling book written by someone who is not an “observer” of addiction, or a person who is recently sober and wants to tell the world that he/she knows exactly what addiction is all about. But rather by someone who has actually used drugs and not crashed over their use (either a current or former user). What Mr. Sheff is saying I have been hearing the same information for over 30 years – why dooes the author and all the people who read these books realize that nothing new is being said – at least nothing significantly new. As log as we keep relying on information gleaned from those observing addiction, or those “recovering” users who have failed life (related or not related to their drug use), we will never get any information of any value. Has it ever occurred to anyone that people continue to use drugs (addicted or not) simply because they have not found anything else that provides greater personal comfort? Has it ever occurred to anyone that perhaps the entire concept of addiction is wrong and needs to go back to zero (that is, no assumptions about the nature or cause of heavy drug and/or alcohol use)?
    Mr. Sheff speaks of “stigma” – how many times have I heard what he said – people don’t understand that addiction is a disease – not a moral failing. And believing that “if people understood addiction as a “disease” the stigma would go away.” Surveys have consistently shown that well over 90% of Americans see addiction as a disease (illness). It isn’t the “disease vs moral failing” where the stigma lies, its’s the fact that drunk drivers kill people and drug users rob people. It’s the behavior, not the condition, that drives the stigma.

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    Matthew Kuehlhorn

    April 5, 2013 at 11:47 AM

    It is great to see this interview as I just heard David on NPR. This story is compelling and needed. Our conversation must change around substance use and abuse.

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    Dave Humes

    April 2, 2013 at 10:02 PM

    On May 19, I lost my son, Greg, to a heroin overdose. In contacting people several days after his death, I wrote in an e-mail: “I know several years ago if someone would have mentioned to me a person who was in numerous rehabs and prison, my immediate thought would have been that he was a ‘bad guy’. That was not Greg.” It is not most of our children. Addiction is not a sympathetic disease to the general public. The first step is to make people understand that it is a disease.

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